Grief and loss are part of life. When you are a police officer, you must deal with not only your own pain and suffering but also that of the people you serve as part of your duties. Police officers face many situations on a daily basis that can be devastating emotionally. Law enforcement officers are often forced to live with daily reminders of traumatic loss. Some are work-related while others may be more personal. Trauma can take many forms. Grieving children who have lost parents to watching a fellow officer suffer from any type of work-related injury, the impact can be life-changing.
Experiencing Loss in Police Work
Police officers receive training on how to keep their emotions in check. It’s important not to show emotion in certain types of events. When an officer experiences any type of loss, it may be difficult for them to express their feelings. The ability to suppress negative emotions in the workplace is a skill that must be practiced.
Some officers become so good at covering their emotions, that it is hard for others to tell if they are dealing with their feelings of loss or grief. Mental health services can help an officer break that cycle and allow them to reconnect with their emotions so they are able to grieve properly.
The Cycle of Grief in Police Work
Police officers are expected to experience grief, deal with it immediately, and then move forward immediately. Traumatic grief is not overcome in an instant. It takes time to work through the cycle of grief. Even when a support group is available, one visit will not help minimize the complicated grief an officer feels.
Not properly dealing with episodes of loss and grief can result in post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a devastating mental health condition that can impact every area of an officer’s life, both personal and professional. An officer can be both a victim and a survivor. While they may be a victim of a horrific work-related event, their decision to be a survivor will actually help them to start the healing process.
Coping with the Work-Related Stress and Loss
Law enforcement officers deal with work-related stress on a daily basis. The many types of loss they experience in the workplace can lead to mental health issues that include depression, anxiety, PTSD, and possible thoughts of suicide.
Law enforcement agencies provide mental health resources and suicide prevention programs. The key is to get the officers to use them. Police survivors need the support of both their fellow officers and community members as well. Substance abuse support groups are also available if officers feel they may have a problem with alcohol or other substances.
Prolonged Grief in Law Enforcement
National organizations in the criminal justice system and the Attorney General recognize that officer suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. Having a grief reaction is normal. Having a grief reaction that continues to impact an officer for a much longer period of time, may be an indicator that they have not properly dealt with their grief and feelings of loss. The inability to accept the loss of a loved one or partner and constant thoughts of suicide indicate an unhealthy grieving process and health care options should be looked into.
Workplace Relationships: More Than Just Co-workers
Police departments and law enforcement agencies are not simply workplaces where employees meet. Bonds are forged that establish family ties. Officers belong to a brotherhood/sisterhood that has stronger ties than most family units. Officers go through many different experiences on a daily basis and establish a level of trust that is unshakeable. They are not just co-workers. What impacts one officer, impacts them all.
Loss of a Partner
The loss of a partner is a devastating event. If the partner retires or moves away, the feelings of loss will be geared more toward learning to live without them and trying to work to build trust with a new partner. When dealing with the death of a partner, bereavement and grief are much different. If they die naturally, an officer may be able to come to terms with the loss a little faster. If they are a victim of work-related violence, grief goes to a whole new level. It brings the risk of their jobs to the forefront and is a constant reminder of their own mortality.
K-9 relationships are unique. Police dogs are true officers in every sense of the word. They risk their lives just like their handlers and work diligently to protect and serve the community. K-9 officers are cared for by their handlers. They become a part of a handler’s family, spending all of their time with them. When a K-9 officer is injured or dies in the line of duty, they receive the same care and honors as a human officer. When a K-9 dies, it isn’t just the handler’s family who grieves. The entire law enforcement community and the public at large often come together to honor the animal that so nobly served and died while performing their duties.
Law Enforcement and Officer Suicide
Police officers deal with stress, grief, and loss on a daily basis. Violent crime can occur anywhere at any time. While policing their communities, officers can come face to face with both the good and the bad. In the name of public safety, officers continue to go to work to serve their community even when they are dealing with personal issues.
Mental health services are available in the workplace to help officers work through their grief in beneficial ways. Suicide prevention programs are in place but many officers avoid them because they believe that it shows weakness. They become so good at hiding their negative emotions that many people don’t even know the officers are in distress.
Dealing With Work-Related Violence
Dealing with work-related violence can be devastating for an officer. The grief, frustration, stress, and anxiety an officer feels when dealing with violent crime can eventually lead to more severe mental health issues if they are left unaddressed. When violence is part of the job, it’s important to be able to utilize every self-care resource you have available to you. Support groups, suicide prevention, and mental health services are available to any officer who needs them.
Take Time Away
As a law enforcement officer, you have the right to take time away when you need it. It is not a sign of weakness. It is not a sign that you cannot do your job. It is a sign that you understand the importance of taking care of yourself in whatever way is most beneficial. If you need time away, take it! Schedule a spa day (yes, male officers enjoy spa services, too!).
If you have witnessed a traumatizing event, it’s important that you are able to process your emotions in a positive way. Don’t rush the process. It takes time to move through all of the steps of grieving. No one handles grief in the same way. Find your path and follow it.
Mandatory self-care is needed to ensure that you are able to stay healthy on every level. Your mental and physical health go hand in hand. When you are dealing with mental health issues, it can have an impact on your physical health and vice versa. Take the time to exercise, eat right, and get the sleep you need.
It’s also important to meditate, find a spiritual outlet, and use whatever mental health support you need to bring your emotional health and physical health back into balance.
Building a Network of Support
A network of support can be very powerful in helping to overcome grief and loss. An officer’s network of support should include fellow officers, family members, church members, community members, and close friends. This support system is your lifeline. Close family members are the ones who know you the best. They know your triggers, but they also know how to reach past the facade and regain your mental/physical/emotional balance.
How the Community Can Help
With all of the division in the country today, people tend to forget one basic fact. Whether you like them or not, when you are in trouble, you call the police. Despite how you feel about them, they will lay down their lives to make sure you are safe. They don’t show up and choose to only help those who support them. No. They serve everyone equally.
With that being said, as a community, people can do many things to offer support and encouragement. When you see a police officer, engage them in conversation. Talk to them. Show them they have your support. A wave, a smile or even a simple hello can show them they are not alone. If you have a little extra cash, pay for a meal or buy an officer a cup of coffee. Buy $10 gift cards to a coffee shop and hand them out to officers when you see them.
Law enforcement officers do their jobs every day. They don’t expect gratitude or thank yous. It is their job and they do it gladly. When you see an officer, you do not know what their past few hours have been like. Say hello, shake their hand, and give them the respect of a simple thank you. It may mean more to them than you will ever realize. You may even save a life of a stressed officer who may feel they have nothing left to offer. An act of random kindness will do wonders.